Resilience Through Storytelling in ‘There There’

Certain insights from Tommy Orange’s debut novel about Urban Indians in Oakland resound across stories of the Armenian genocide as well.

armenian grandmother
COURTESY OF AJAY ORONA

My Armenian grandmother often told me a story about a man who was sentenced to starve to death in a Turkish prison. Her hazel eyes would glow like gems as she sat at the foot of my bed and conjured up the image of the man in his cell.

The man’s only crime was that he had climbed Mount Ararat—the fabled mountain from Genesis in the Bible and a sacred site for Armenians—shortly after the Turks had invaded Armenia unprovoked and claimed it as their own. I don’t remember why he did this, knowing that he would be punished for crossing the border, but I can still hear the desperation in my grandmother’s voice as she imitated the man’s wife pleading with the guards to let her see her husband.

While this event took place about a decade before my grandmother was born, she relayed it with such passion that it felt as if she had been in the dungeon with him. No doubt, this was how her grandmother, Yaya, who had survived the Armenian genocide and the Turkish-Armenian War, had shared it with her.

Every time I listened to my grandmother tell it, I was surprised that the guards took pity on the man’s wife, patted her down—not for weapons, but for food—and let her into his cell. The woman would undress in the dark and, guided by a gleam of light from a small window, stumble over to her husband and breastfeed him. She nursed him every other day, just enough to keep him alive. When the Turkish authorities learned that he had not died after some weeks, they grew afraid and released him, believing that they had accidentally imprisoned an angel.

Nearly 20 years have passed since I last heard this story, but it returned to me like a familiar incense as I read Tommy Orange’s 2018 multigenerational debut novel about Urban Indians, There There. Their lives, intimately rendered, crisscross and then collide in an unforgettable climax at a powwow.

Orange writes in the prologue that compulsory assimilation was intended to be the final blow of the “five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign” against Native people. He tells of the Sand Creek Massacre, during which unborn babies were torn from their mothers’ bellies, peaceful villagers were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers, and females were mutilated, their genitalia paraded around as trophies.

Similar atrocities occurred during the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Empire, causing my grandmother’s grandparents to flee from their home in Smyrna, Turkey, and immigrate to Cairo, Egypt. My grandmother told me these stories as well, including one about a relative whose stomach was used as a stove by Turkish soldiers to make coffee.

When the U.S. Senate passed a bill in 2019 to recognize the Armenian genocide (more than 100 years after the killings began), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, responded by urging his country’s parliament to do the same regarding the United States’ decimation of Native Americans. “Can we speak about America without mentioning [Native Americans]?” Erdoğan asked. “It is a shameful moment in U.S. history.”

Indeed, it was a shameful moment, but by drawing a comparison between the slaughter of Natives and Armenians, Erdoğan unwittingly admitted to the genocide. Yet Turkey’s official stance on the Armenian genocide remains that it never occurred. This rejection of the truth and attempted erasure of Armenians’ suffering has exacerbated the psychological and spiritual pain they have carried from the genocide for generations, like an open wound.

My grandmother coped with this suffering through storytelling. Relating eyewitness accounts of the genocide and singing Armenian folk songs was how she lamented. It was how she ensured her heritage would be preserved. If my grandmother could not bring Mount Ararat to us, her grandchildren, across an ocean, she would take us to it in words.

But what do a people do when their Mount Ararat is not only stolen from them, but also leveled and paved over? What kinds of stories do they tell?

Dene Oxendene, one of the main characters in There There, an aspiring filmmaker, believes that simply documenting the lives of individual Natives, or Urban Indians, in their own voices is a powerful tool to change how others and even Natives view themselves.

“What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad that it can’t be entertaining,” Dene tells a panel of judges while seeking grant money for his film project. Discussing Native representation outside Hollywood, he adds: “The whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage.”

Interestingly, Dene thinks that by capturing the “passion” and “rage” of his subjects, he may be able to flip the script on lingering sadness within his Urban Indian community. He suggests it stems not only from the violence of the past, but also from their continued inability to talk about it however they see fit.

Orange writes in the book’s interlude: “All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal.”

The accounts that my grandmother shared with me are not your typical bedtime stories, yet they never gave me nightmares. Nor did they make me feel pitiful or small. On the contrary, I understood that they connected me to an ancient, proud, and resilient people. In hindsight, I was lucky to hear those stories.

And fortunately for Indians, and those wishing to better understand the Native experience, Orange penned There There. It harnesses all the passion and rage of a people who have been displaced, abused, cheated, and robbed—yet not broken.

Within the novel, we learn that the Indian and this land are one. And amid the concrete, glass, and asphalt, a new Indian has made a home.•

Please be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss There There with Tommy Orange on November 18 at 6 p.m. Pacific. Please note the change in our meeting time for this month from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Clubhouse to talk about the parts of the book that resonate for you and why.

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